Monday, March 24, 2008

Lavender Fields and Pudding Stones: Tasting Côtes du Rhône

Flight of Cotes du Rhone. Click for high res photo. (c)2008 SmellLikeGrape
Tasting Tour of the Rhône
Last weekend we went to a Rhône Tasting at Gordon’s in Waltham, MA. We meet up with fellow bloggers Richard from A Passionate Foodie who had a group from his North Shore Winers club there, and Cathy from 365 Days of Wine. Both Richard and Cathy have posted write-ups about the region and the wines that you should check out. To start us off, our tour guide Nick Cobb shared with us his sentimental attachment to Châteauneuf du Pape: This was the wine served in the home he grew up in. This was his first experience of what wine tasted like, and his sentimentality has translated into a real passion and appreciation for the area.

Global Warming and the New Châteauneuf du Pape
The Côtes du Rhône is a low-lying plain region bordered to the South by the Mediterranean and to the West and East by mountains. The premise of the flight of nine wines was to illustrate the different ways that vintners are handling the effects of Global Warming (increased average temperature) in the wines of the region. We were shown a variety of handlings for undoing the effects of higher temps, culminating with the '05 Domaine de Deurre Vinsobres which is, according to our host, the best example of what Châteauneuf du Pape was 40 years ago. The Domaine de Deurre Vinsobres is a blend of 70% Grenache, 20% Syrah, 10% Mourvèdre. The vineyard is located between Nyons and Vinsobres which is getting up into the hills a bit and is more northerly than Orange and Châteauneuf du Pape where the majority of the wines we tasted were being produced. Pair the location with the use of Grenache as the primary grape in the blend, rather than the more traditional Syrah which has not behaved as well with the increased temperatures, and you have a wine that Cobb’s grandfather would have recognized as Châteauneuf du Pape. On the nose were black cherry, marigold, lavender, animali, and blackberry. The flavors gave way to olive and more cherry. The image that flashed while tasting this wine was ruby slippers.

The Heat is On
From here we began looking at the other side of wine-making in the Rhône: The Traditionalists making wine the way it’s always been made and allowing the wine to express less traditional attributes brought on by the change in climate such as bigger fruit and higher alcohol. The next wine we tasted was noticeably higher in alcohol: 15% to be precise. Which leads to an interesting question: When it comes to historical wine-making regions, how are the Old World traditions maintained? Is it done by adapting technique to the climate so as to produce a wine that possesses the greatest quantity of qualities in common with its predecessors? Or is it done by sticking with traditional methods, and letting the wine express new characteristics that were not traditionally an aspect of the wines of the region? Clearly, the wine-makers of the Côtes du Rhône have answered this question differently.

Traditional Technique vs. Traditional Result (AKA: Old World vs. Old World (?))
Most of the wines showcased were fermented in stainless or cement. Only three of the wines were in contact with wood, and only one of those in regular oak barrels, the other two being aged in foudres which are too large an investment to replace regularly. Obviously, stainless steel is not a traditional wine-containment material. Cement is a little closer in that it is similar to carving a tank out of rock. Cobb mentioned sites he’d been to while a wine-maker in Greece where such ancient pits are still used in traditional wine making: They just throw the whole grapes into the ground and come back two weeks later. An interesting point was made about the difference between using oak in the utilitarian sense of simple wine-containment device as opposed to using oak as flavor which is decidedly New World. While some historic wine growing regions had little access to wood and relied on earthenware or other vessels, there is certainly a long history of wooden wine containers. The difference is that the wood is rarely new in traditional applications. The last wine of the flight, an ‘05 Patrick Lesec Châteauneuf du Pape did see barrel aging but was not over-oaked, was well balanced, and fruity. After 8 unoaked subtle wines, it may not have been a fair match to suddenly flip the switch to this more intense wine, which I feel may have shown more nuance on it’s own than it did in this line up.

Thanks to Gordon’s and to Nick Cobb for this fascinating look at a changing region which also happens to be the oldest wine growing region in France.


Jean-Marc said...

Hi there,
I know this article was posted long time ago but since I am trying to get Adonna Import phone, I am leaving a comment.
I am a small biodynamic producer in the Rhône Valley using 50 years old vines and MA is the only State I am looking for distribution (we already have 8 importers).
Can somebody help me ?
Jean-Marc Espinasse
Domaine Rouge-Bleu
Tel : +33 6 15 10 52 01

Find our wines at :